“Power isn’t doing something terrible to someone who’s weaker than you, Reiner. It’s having the strength to do something terrible and choosing not to.”Franz Hartmann, The Storyteller
If you’re in limbo between books, pick this up first. If right now, you’re in the middle of reading a crappy novel, just drop that and pick this one up. Even if you’re reading a decent story, I bet this book would still beat it.
The Storyteller is obviously not the first book that ever brings up Auschwitz, the most notorious slaughter camp in human history, as its premise. Be that as it may, it’s one that does it from a slightly different angle. It’s common to punctuate the unimaginable atrocity the SS has done in holocaust, but time to time, it’s interesting to ask a different question. Were all men in SS equally heartless?
Do you know that the Nazi tried to hide the fact they’re killing the Jews, by changing the word ‘extermination’ to ‘evacuation’, the term ‘crematoria’ into ‘labor camps’? What they did was so messed up, they knew that if other countries knew what they were doing in those horror camps, they would be unanimously condemned without a single ally. Even they knew that they were doing something unthinkably wrong. Even they knew.
SS was the army branch that dealt with the racial politics, and was divided into two main subdivisions, one was Allgemeine SS, which was the policy maker, and the other was Waffen SS, or “Armed SS”. There’s a third subdivision, – worth to mention, I also read somewhere that later on it was promoted to be an independent division- which was called SS–Totenkopfverbӓnde, which literally translated as Death’s Head Unit. In short, it was referred as SS–TV, and this specific part of the SS organization was the very one that handled both concentration camps and extermination camps.
Initially I wanted to know how many Germans joined SS-TV, or even SS as a whole. But, it’s proven not easy to find the exact number as reports don’t seem to agree on same count. One estimate says that SS consisted of around 800.000 men, while another report approximates that between 800.000 and 910.000 men had been listed as members of Waffen SS alone. Furthermore, there is also this one account that mentions that in 1939, a decree was released to allow SS-TV to expand its body to 50.000 men.
Whatever the number, we could all at least agree that this is no small body of men. Under Hitler’s –apparently very convincing– propaganda, tens –could be hundreds– of thousands young men oversaw the slaughterhouse, beat any Jew that was not compliant enough, shot whoever was too weak to walk, and systematically, going by unsympathetic lists, put the Jews, section by section, into the infamous gas chambers, while keeping in their mind, that the goal was to wipe clean the whole race. Now, let me ask you this. If you, yourself were a young patriotic German at that time, would you do that? Would you kill another human being, casually looking into their eyes, and not feel a thing? Could you do that “for your country”?
Could tens of thousands fully functioning adults be convinced of executing atrocity at that insane level?
Understandably, The Storyteller won’t answer that question for us. It is for us to think about it.
What do you think?
Fortunately, the novel doesn’t stop at throwing one intriguing crumb at us and then bye, but it goes as far as wrap it up nicely with a solid a-story-in-another-story narrative. Promise you, they’re well-written chapters that would give you plenty of time to ponder on the impossible subject.
There is a plot, there is a subplot, and then there’s also a second subplot. Main plot is alright, second subplot is fine, but subplot is second to none.
In one of grief meetings, a girl is approached by a very old man. Without much pretense, the nonagenarian asks her politely if she could help him. Sure, she says. Then, casually, he asks her to kill him. Yes, you did not read that wrong. He wants her to murder him. To help him die. He insists that he deserves to die and therefore should, and, he’s tried to kill himself, but repetitively failed. To him, not succeeding to die is a cruel punishment. Trying hard to convince her, he elaborates that he was an SS officer in WWII, and he did many terrible things that should render him execution. And that since she is a Jew –which she takes as a slight– she’ll grant him his wish.
And of course, everyone would say yes to that. No, we don’t. In fact, no one, would say yes that sort of absurdity. Or at least not right away if you persist. The girl refuses him, but the old man is beyond adamant. So now she’s going on looking for an appropriate response. A way to do this right. If there’s any. Turns out she doesn’t need to walk far. After all, her own nana is a holocaust survivor. And she happens to have that second to none story to tell.
Plus, it really doesn’t hurt that nana is the queen of storytelling.
The name Totenkopfverbande which means Death’s Head Unit was originated because the caps worn by its members were decorated with an insignia that featured the image of skull. This emblem was not meant to imply that the Totenkopfverbande was carrying out murderous acts. Rather, it symbolized that the unit was committed to remaining faithful to Hitler to the death. (Source: history.com)